This piece was authored by The Global Commons Working Group of the World Economic Forum Global Future Council of Synthetic Biology.

  • Biotechnology is making it possible to combat global challenges such as COVID-19.
  • To progress further, biological data and its benefits have to be shared globally, too.
  • If the biotechnology revolution is to benefit everyone, we must embrace new forms of collaboration.

Advancements in biotechnology are making it possible for us to combat global challenges with biology at their core – like COVID-19 and biodiversity loss – as well as providing solutions to more diverse issues – like supply chain breakdowns and chemical pollution.

But sharing biological data is complicated, and for the bioeconomy to reach its full potential, we need to improve how biological data is accessed and how benefits are shared. Public and private sectors, civil society, and academia must work together to find a scalable and ethical solution.

Bioeconomy expected to be major source of economic growth

The bioeconomy, or the fraction of the economy driven by research and innovation in biotechnology, already represents a significant proportion of total global economic output and is set to experience significant growth over the coming decades. Historically dominated by the biomedical and agricultural sectors, biotechnology is now being used across myriad disciplines. This is possible because of falling costs of basic life science development processes, like DNA synthesis and DNA sequencing, and increasing precision and efficiency of gene editing tools like CRISPR.

Together, these shifts are making it easier than ever to develop affordable and effective biological innovations. The McKinsey Global Institute recently projected the field to have an economic impact of up to $4 trillion USD a year over the next 10 to 20 years. With innovation across molecular- and systems biology, machine-interface and computing arenas, they estimate that as much as 60% of the world’s manufacturing raw materials could be produced biologically.

Synthethic biology powers global solutions.
Image: Ginkgo Bioworks

Biotechnology revolution key to addressing major global challenges

New biotechnology has not only given us the best answer to COVID-19, but also stands to be our best shot at addressing other massive global challenges, such as climate change and biodiversity loss. Synthetic biology is a key area of advancement. Through advanced bioinformatics and automation, synthetic biology allows us to precisely engineer organisms at an unprecedented scale, unlocking applications like petroleum replacements, textile production, and animal-free meat and dairy products.

If the biotechnology revolution is to benefit our species, interconnected ecosystems, and planet, we must embrace new forms of collaboration, consensus-building, and governance to work together across companies and countries alike.

Data as a key driver of the bioeconomy

Harnessing the benefits of the biotechnology revolution via new forms of collaboration must also include a shared knowledge repository of global efforts – as well as a shared data commons for the purposes of informing synthetic biology actions and responsible safeguards globally for life as we know it. Data that catalogs the natural world is a critical component to a thriving bioeconomy.

Biological data is the raw material that powers large scale experiments and enables the design of novel biological systems inspired by nature. Synthetic biology lets us rapidly develop vaccines and therapeutics during epidemics and pandemics, and is increasingly central to addressing threats to biodiversity, making our supply chains more sustainable and secure, improving nutrition, and safeguarding the environment. Biological information fuels these innovations, and sharing that data broadly helps us respond to urgent societal problems.

Difficulties in sharing biological data brings risk

Despite its importance, present day approaches to sharing biological data - and related benefits - are not well suited to unlocking the potential for new biotechnology to benefit society. Data on genetic sequences, structure-function relationships, growth patterns, stress responses and more are fundamental to progress, but this data is not always accessible enough.

Tension exists between allowing for widespread sharing of biological data and governing the benefits of innovations produced from biological data. Thoughtful ethical guardrails, data sharing restrictions and privacy safeguards are needed to ensure proper use, while overly complicated barriers to sharing biological data or unclear benefit sharing mechanisms could risk limiting scientific progress.

Harnessing biological data against global challenges

Such challenges can be solved through prototypes that pilot the concepts of “data trusts” and “data cooperatives” as ways to achieve the shared knowledge of biotechnology efforts occurring worldwide. Shared data commons, for the purposes of informing synthetic biology actions, can safeguard responsibility globally.

Recently, there has been wide recognition of the importance of increasing the efficiency of access to biological data while promoting ethical use. And COVID-19 has illustrated the value of sharing biological data to ensure shared knowledge, access to genetic resources, and continued innovation. But finding scalable solutions has been challenging. Public sector, private sector, and civil society communities must identify shared priorities, develop new data sharing solutions and work to foster global adoption of those solutions.

Given urgent global challenges, developing widely adopted solutions to sharing biological knowledge, data, and the benefits of the bioeconomy are more important than ever. As synthetic biology advances and increases its capability to aid in resolving global crises, global stakeholders must agree on effective standards for ensuring ethical access and availability of genetic information.

The authors are members of the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on Synthetic Biology, The Global Commons Working Group members include council members:

Jason Kelly

Emily LeProust

Xun Xu

Eyal Emmanuel

Keolu Fox

Benson Kinyagia

Jenny Molloy

Megan J. Palmer

Elissa Prichep

David Bray

Cameron Fox